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The Centuries Old Invisible Forces That May Be Undermining Your Positive Volunteer Engagement

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My life’s been a roller coaster since the start of the pandemic. I suspect this has also been the case for you. But even in the midst of what I can only describe as chaos I still had time to pause and think, not necessarily by choice, but out of mere survival. Of course, much of my energy was spent thinking about work. That’s only natural and just reinforces Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. But while thinking about my work (namely engaging volunteers as a social impact professional) I went down a rabbit whole. As America continues to grapple with its dark history of racism, I began thinking about how this nation’s past shaped the very institutions that engage volunteers, and how that could very well be undermining the positive work they're chartered to support.

Look, let’s be honest for a second and acknowledge that “good intentions” don’t always translate to “positive outcomes”. I think we can all point to many occasions of the well-intentioned volunteer whose heart is in the "right place", but whose energy and expectations on how they're involved are misplaced.

I believe that very scenario we often find ourselves (while engaging volunteers) is just a microcosm of something much, much larger and deeper rooted. I happen to think this is the result of centuries old social and cultural ideals stemming back decades before our nation’s founding. Yes, the early 1700s. It may not even surprise you that some of these very ideals shape and permeate the many institutions that are missioned to solve critical social and environmental issues. And it may not be a stretch to imagine they even have a profound influence on the professionals whose job it is (at these institutions) to engage volunteers.

Here’s what I mean by that. American’s talk about volunteering as being a big part of our value system. And it is. But, the act of giving one’s time for others through formal institutions while not unique to the United States, isn’t universally valued by others. I would even say that the way we value volunteering as Americans is different than even some other western nations (Canada, United Kingdom and Australia included). That’s not to say it’s “better” or “worse”, just different.

But all of this is shaped by centuries of ideals in which our nation was founded on. But, while I believe that’s evolved over time, there’s still quite a bit from our past that influences modern day policy that may be undermining the very work we’re championing. And I surmise that as well-intentioned as many non-profit organizations are (advocating for social and environmental issues) there’s a dark side we must address because of these influences.

You see, I believe strongly that the very institutions that engage volunteers to solve critical social and environmental issues aren’t socially and environmentally by default simply because they’re missioned to solve a critical issue. A big part of this has much to do with the historical underpinnings of when, who and how many institutions are founded. Collectively this ultimately shapes the landscape of volunteering in America. I would even suggest that until this is understood, nothing will change.

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Volunteering isn’t a new concept. That may be an issue.

Most people have heard the term “blank canvas”. It refers to the freedom an artist has when creating a new piece of art. It’s often used when talking about creating something from scratch. When someone says “oh, well you have a blank canvas to work from”, that indicates an ability to create without having to redo, undo, paint over or change something that already exists. Well, I’m sad to say volunteering isn’t a blank canvas. Matter of fact, the concept of volunteering can be traced all the way back to 1736 when the first volunteer firehouse was erected by Benjamin Franklin. Yes, the man on the one-hundred-dollar bill. The Union Fire Company, (also known as Benjamin Franklin's Bucket Brigade) was founded after an expressed need for more effective firefighting. In classic form, someone identified a critical issue and set out to solve it. The firehouse remained active until 1820.

It might not even surprise you to know the firehouse (while manned by close to 30 members) required the members to pay a fee. This fee of course paid for the equipment and the material readiness of said equipment and the firehouse. Members took turns managing the communication and inspection of gear. Does this practice sound familiar? Of course it does, the only change now is that volunteer-based (and led) organizations have become much more complex. However, this structure of management still exists in many places today.

But this post isn’t so much about the firehouse. Rather, this post is about the time period and social landscape in which the firehouse was founded. A time rooted in a deep slave trade.

You see, the early 1700s was during a period called the First Great Awakening. And while this was the first of three Great Awakenings (a major religious revival movement), this was a time in American history where the color of your skin was coupled with either "purity" or needing "saving". This won't be surprising, but those with dark skin were wrongfully associated with criminalistic behavior and having a soul that needed “saving” from birth.

I share this because as we continue through the Second Great Awakening (which spanned the 1700s to the early 1800s), this marked a fundamental transition in American religious life that placed greater emphasis on humans' ability to change their situation for the better by choosing to be saved. This was also a time period that saw the highest participation of Black American’s in Christianity and a motion towards anti-slavery than ever before in America's history. That being said, much of this was still shaped by a focus on a religious commitment to social reform by elite and middle-class citizens (often times white colonists) of the time. And while motivated by a concept of religious benevolence that encouraged them to "improve" the condition of what they considered “spiritually impoverished” people, these religious reformers created a national network of religious institutions in the decade following that imposed their ideals of “good and bad” on others. These views were mostly imposed on those they believed needing saving.

This was also the period that gave birth to some of the longest standing volunteer institutions that are revered today. This includes the likes of the YMCA (sometimes called the Y, but originally as the Young Men's Christian Association), the American Red Cross, The Salvation Army and The United Way. And while many of these organizations were founded in the early years following Juneteenth (the abolishment of slavery), this was still a contested time where slavery and segregation were still front and center on American’s minds and even written within the laws in a way that worked against people of color. It was a period of time where many (including many large institutions and those who led them) still believed people of color could not make decisions for their own good or the betterment of their community.

And while I’m not calling out any of these organizations as being "bad", there’s still some controversial issues that stigmatize some of them to this day. Matter of fact, it was as recent as late 2019 that The Salvation Army was yet again in the media crosshairs answering questions over what their critics are calling anti-LGBTQ practices. While these accusations are not about race, I still have to believe that much of this has to do with their original founding ideals from the mid to late 1800s. And like The Salvation Army being called out by critics for practices that discriminate against sexual orientation, I imagine there are non-profits that exist to this day (while well intentioned) that are being criticized for practices that still have racist underpinnings.

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Present day volunteering. Has anything actually changed?

Beyond the Great Awakening and as we fast-forward to the 20th Century, volunteering has become much more mainstream. It was the 1900s where organizations like Rotary Club, Kiwanis and Lions Club were established (and are still here today). Even organizations like Volunteers of America were born from the Great Depression. And as we move into the 1960s many other organizations sprouted up in efforts to fight “the war on poverty”.

Many organizations are founded to solve critical issues of poverty and food insecurity, but, we still must acknowledge the roots of these very organizations. Why you ask? Well, because there’s a dark side to volunteering that can often times be the result of well-intentioned people that don't understand the historical underpinnings that influence these same organizations. And, as a result, many of these same people I would argue rush to solve issues they don’t immediately understand or are even unintentionally contributing to and even perpetuating.

When people rush to solve problems they don’t understand, they can end up acting in a way which imposes a specific vision of what’s “right and wrong” or “good and bad” on other cultures. All of these behaviors I would suggest are centuries old and have mutated through the years from the colonial structures that shaped America’s very existence. One of many examples of how this manifests in volunteer engagement is the practice of voluntourism which remains controversial. I must also point out that the practice of voluntourism happens here in the United States.

As I mentioned at the head of this article, I don’t believe any establishment is by default socially or environmentally responsible simply because they engage in social impact programing for a specific community.

That’s not to say they’re “bad”, just an acknowledgement that more can and must be done to create fair and just structures; for the community being served, the volunteers engaged and employees who work there. It simply acknowledges that institutions have blind-spots just as we do as humans. Humans are imperfect, and so are the well-intentioned structures created by their hands. Now, in theory of course, non-profit organizations are based on values of community, diversity, justice, integrity and equity. Right? These organizations are designed to uplift and empower. But there’s still unintended harm that can be done by institutions that fail to recognize their blind-spots. This here is what we need to get to the root of acknowledging, identifying and taking action to solve. But how often does a non-profit have a self-reckoning? I imagine it’s a rarity.

That being said, The Sierra Club did just that back in July. But, I won’t spend too much time on this. Instead, I’m going to share a brilliant article titled “What we can learn from the Sierra Club's moment of self-reckoning”. As stated by the author, Garrett Zink, “admitting that you have a problem is the first step to recovery. Admitting that the United States has a racist past and has long ignored structures and systems that are inherently racist is not the same as saying that Americans are rotten to the core, incapable of doing good, or irredeemable; it is, instead, an acknowledgement that we have harmed ourselves and those to whom we have a moral responsibility”.

What's written gets to the heart of my point. Good intentions may not lead to good outcomes, and unbeknownst to us the good intentions may be guided by underpinnings from a grim past. But, admitting there's a problem to begin with is the first step.

But I suspect underlying issues like this aren’t even unique to Sierra Club. I’m not necessarily speaking of overt racism by a founder, rather, more so the homogenous environment that is the non-profit sector that perpetuate centuries old issues.

Photo by James Orr on Unsplash

The homogenous non-profit environment.

It may come at no surprise to many that there’s a significant racial leadership gap in the non-profit sector. Pre-COVID it was estimated that close to 80% of non-profit sector senior leadership positions were held by white people. And of course, this number may now be different, and I suspect we’ll know more by the end of 2021. Regardless of COVID-19 though, the disparity long-term has led to a homogenous approach to solving problems. Simply put, homogeneous environments create a situation where there’s a lower chance that decision makers might actually understand the concerns of more diverse communities, including the community served, volunteers engaged and those they employ.

Now, I must also mention, according to research (when that same lens is applied to the largest 315 non-profit organizations and foundations) that number creeps up to 90% of senior leader positions that are held by white people. One must wonder if this lack of inherent diversity has created a situation where decision makers at some of the largest and most powerful mission-based organizations are all thinking too much alike in how they approach solving issues.

Let that seep in. Think about that point as we continue.

Now, brace yourself for this.

What if I said white supremacy doesn't always show up as a Neo-Nazi or Ku Klux Klan member?

You’d probably agree, right? Because racism exists in many forms.

Well, what if I said white supremacy is simply defined as white people having the most access to and control over money, resources and people?

Think about that for a second and where most of the power is held within the non-profit sector as we know it.

Look, I believe the 80-90% of senior leaders (in positions of power) are sincere and well intentioned with their leading and managing their respective non-profit organizations and foundations. However, we can’t ignore the potential for unintended harm as a result of potential blind-spots created through a homogenous non-profit sector. Unfortunately, this isn’t easily changed. It’s not as simple as hiring more diverse leaders in positions of power. I’ll tell you why. The underlying reason is that homogenous environments perpetuate the issue.

Here’s what the cycle looks like. Over 80% of non-profits staff leverage their own networks when recruiting new employees. I see this all the time when working with clients. Adding to this, it’s estimated that 75% of white Americans have social networks that do not include a minority presence. This leads to a homogenous applicant pool. Research also shows that implicit bias then elevates the white applicants in that process, and compounding on this research suggests that applicants with “white sounding” names are 50% more likely to get an interview than those with African-American or “Black sounding” names.

Further research indicates that white hiring managers may even recommend Black candidates less often than a white candidate with the exact same credentials. And there you have it, while that's an oversimplification of a complex issue, that’s basically how white led and managed organizations stay white. Oh, and if you don’t think a name matters on a job application or when being interviewed for a job, here’s a fantastic Huffington Post article written by C. Marie Taylor, Principal Consultant at Equity Through Action (and former CEO of Leadership Montgomery), titled “I’m A Black Woman Who Had To Change Her Name To Get Ahead Professionally”. In this post, C. Marie shares her own personal experience navigating the ladder of leadership and why she changed her name to accel.

And of course professionals who engage volunteers for a living don’t often hire paid employees (unless they're in a dual role within Human Resources (HR) or serving as a hiring manager). But, it’s my estimation that non-profit volunteer engagement professionals recruit, equip, train, staff and support the work of more people than the average HR practitioner. And I suspect as these same professionals review résumé and volunteer applications, there could very well be unconscious biases at play. All of which making it incredibly relevant for professionals who engage volunteers to be aware of unconscious biases and underpinnings of the institutions where they work.

So, knowing this, we must wonder how the very institutions (missioned to solve critical issues in society) create their policy, how that shapes their programs and structures and whether or not it actually uplifts those of diverse communities. Here's what I would ask other professionals who engage volunteers through their job functions.

  • Do you know how your organization was founded? And if so, how has that shaped your policy in terms of how you engage volunteers?

  • Do you work for an organization that has a dark past?

  • How have some of what could be considered racist underpinnings influenced or created barriers to your engaging volunteers?

  • Do you work for an organization that has a great disparity between your leadership and those you serve? Has that crippled your ability to positively engage volunteers?

Why do I share this post and ask all these questions? Well, simply because we have to start thinking about the invisible forces that are generations older than us that perhaps influence the policy that may be working against our efforts. As we seek to engage more diverse populations as volunteers, as our own staff or even support the communities we’re chartered to support, we have to think long and hard about if we're uplifting these communities or undermining our work by perpetuating an issue. I would also say that we must be careful and create an environment where the community being served isn't excluded from having a seat at the decision making table while also being excluded from participating (as volunteers) in the very programs that support these communities through our very institutions.

By creating that type of exclusive environment we effectively create an institution that makes decisions for a community that has no voice or say-so within the organization that's advocating on their behalf.

Lastly, as we're thinking about our institutions, we must also go the next step in addressing what may be considered characteristics of white supremacy that may show up (normative behaviors) through our program policy. We must also think about social exclusion, and other factors that build even more barriers to creating more diverse and just environments where we engage others in service. Final question, over the past six to seven months, what have you done to think about the invisible barriers that may shape how you engage volunteers? How have you maintained your quest to remain Responsible AF? Feel free to shoot me a note, whether that's email or perhaps in an open forum like social media. In any case I look forward to hearing from you soon.

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